This week: A marine's stories about Iraq, debating Russia's true power, and the mystery of renaissance painter Piero della Francesca.
Fiction: Redeployment by Phil Klay (Penguin): This debut collection from Klay, a marine who served in Iraq, takes an intimate look at the emotional impact of that war on the men and women who served there. These stories deal with the difficulties of returning home and adjusting to civilian life, the absurdity of improving Iraqis’ lives by teaching them how to play baseball, and the always-unpredictable responses to battlefield horrors. This powerful depiction of the Iraq war recalls Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried and Hemmingway’s In Our Time.
Nonfiction: How Paris Became Paris: The Invention of the Modern City by Joan DeJean (Bloomsbury): Dejean hopes to change the way readers imagine Paris, arguing that the city’s development began, not in the 1800s, but early in the seventeenth century. Radical new ideas about city planning—tearing down its fortifications; the development of sidewalks, public parks, and boulevards; and investments in public transportation and street lighting—went hand-in-hand with newly opened entertainment venues: concert halls, opera houses, and centers for shopping. These elements combined to leave a lasting mark on the way the western world built cities.
Poetry: David Yezzi on William Logan in The Sewanee Review: The Winter 2014 issue of The Sewanee Review, themed “The Dance of Poetry,” features an essay on the work of the critic and poet William Logan by New Criterion Poetry Editor David Yezzi. Yezzi argues that “Logan has unlocked the virtues of difficulty in others, and the same virtues may be found in his own poems.”
Art: American Academy of Arts and Letters 2014 Invitational Exhibition of Visual Arts at the Audubon Terrace (March 4–April 12, 2014): Featuring over 120 works from 37 artists selected by the Academy, this show can be viewed Thursdays through Sundays, 1–4 p.m.
Other: Intelligence Squared U.S. Debates: “Russia Is a Marginal Power” in the Merkin Concert Hall at the Kaufman Music Center (March 12): Between Syria, Snowden, Iran, and now Ukraine, the question of Russia’s true geopolitical power is both important and unanswered. In this debate, Iam Bremmer, the founder and president of Eurasia Group, and Edward Lucas, a senior editor of The Economist, will argue that Russia is a marginal power. Ambassador Robert D. Blackwill, the former Deputy National Security Advisor under President George W. Bush, and Peter Hitchens, a columnist for Mail on Sunday and the former Moscow correspondent for Daily Express, argue that Russia is still a global force to be reckoned with.
From the archive: The other other Frost by William Logan, June 1995: On the moral confusion found in Robert Frost’s work.
From our latest issue: Piero della Francesca: the world knew him not by Marco Grassi: In search of the true story of Piero della Francesca, the forgotten hero of the Early Renaissance.
E-mail to friend
Every now and then, the New York Philharmonic throws a musical at you. On Friday night, they threw Sweeney Todd, the Sondheim hit (or one of several such hits). The Philharmonic had performed Sweeney before—in 2000, with a mixture of classical and Broadway singers. In the former camp was Heidi Grant Murphy. In the latter camp was Audra McDonald, who portrayed the Beggar Woman. She was back in that role on Friday night.
The title role, Sweeney, was taken by Bryn Terfel—who was originally scheduled to sing the part in 2000. In the end, it was taken by George Hearn, the Broadway star. Last week’s Mrs. Lovett was one of the greatest actresses of our time: Emma Thompson. Can she sing, too? Yes, she can. Who knew? Not me, for one.
At the beginning of the evening, the singers trooped out as though they were going to give a concert performance—in formal clothes and holding books. But they soon threw down their books and mussed their duds, launching into a nearly full-on production.
It was shocking, I must say, to hear Terfel amplified—miked. There was heavy amplification in this show, as there is in America at large. Overamplification is a curse of our time, I think—on Broadway, at wedding receptions, and elsewhere. You’ll be in a little restaurant with a flat roof, and there’ll be a little musical ensemble—which thinks it has to be heavily miked. No one cares, evidently. Indeed, they seem to like it.
I noticed something odd on Friday night: Someone would sing while traversing the stage. But the sound would still be coming from the same spot—not traveling with the singer. This confused me (and maybe I was wrong about the sound).
The production was by Lonny Price, same as in 2000—different production, however. This one was brilliant. (I cast no asperions on the previous one; it’s simply that I didn’t see it.) The show was fast and smart. In almost every moment, it was eye-catching. A kettle drum served as a table. A trombone served as a grinder—the grinder, the one in which the murder victims are ground, three times smooth. Every time Sweeney killed someone, a large, red, bloody handprint on the back wall lit up.
Sweeney Todd must be one of the darkest roles in musical theater, and here Bryn Terfel has a problem, I think. Many years ago, I heard and saw him as the Four Villains in The Tales of Hoffmann. My problem was, he was just so likable. Hardly villainous at all. Terfel, I have long maintained, is the most likable human being in music. Everyone loves him—men and women alike. (This is relatively rare, I believe.)
Was he horrifying enough as Sweeney? Yes, he was—but likable nonetheless. He can’t help it. As for his singing, it was wonderful: glowing, accurate, explosive, tender. He is one of the most natural singers we have ever heard. Furthermore, he can act—better than opera-act.
Thompson, of course, is a world-beater. She was thrillingly vivid. You couldn’t take your eyes off her. Speaking of which: Should Mrs. Lovett really be so attractive?
I won’t remark on the entire cast, but just a few more—starting with Audra McDonald. It was interesting to hear her put on a kind of English accent. And to see this glamorous woman turn into a crazed, vulgar, begging wretch. She is indeed an actress, and a game one. Sometimes, when she sings, she sounds like a singer imitating a Broadway singer. But she has done all right in her career without taking lessons from me.
Jeff Blumenkrantz was the Beadle, and he exhibited what I can only call a loose sinisterness—a happy, Dick Van Dyke-like villainy. It was very effective. Erin Mackey was in the Heidi Grant Murphy role of Joanna. She may be a Broadway singer, and I’ve never heard her unmiked, but she is also a real-live lyric soprano. A tenth-grader from Norwalk, Connecticut, was Toby. His name is Kyle Brenn, and he was winsome in his Dr. Dulcamara act. (Toby peddles a miracle drug à la the “doctor” in The Elixir of Love.) All through Sweeney, he was both earnest and endearing.
The Philharmonic’s music director, Alan Gilbert, conducted—with an admirably sure sense of pacing. Not a tempo seemed misjudged. And he obviously understood the dynamics of the show, by which I mean, not forte and piano, but emotions.
A question: Why does the Philharmonic do this? Why do they put on musicals periodically? I don’t know, but it can’t hurt—including the bottom line.
The audience seemed to be dotted with celebrities. I say “seemed”: Was that Angela Lansbury, the original Mrs. Lovett? I think so. Was that Benedict Cumberbatch, the actor who plays Sherlock Holmes? Pretty sure. Was that Gary Oldman? I may be off on that one, but there was at least someone who looked rather like him.
Listed in the “ensemble,” by the way, was a Sam Tebaldi. I always wanted to hear Tebaldi, in the flesh. I’ll have to settle for Sam.
E-mail to friend
So, Obama once again “delays” the law of the land on Obamacare. Why? Because there is an election coming up, silly, and he wants to do what he can to protect vulnerable Democrats. I pick this bit from The Detroit News more or less at random: “In announcing the latest postponement this week . . [...]
I am holed up in in beautiful Antigua (Lat. 17.07 Long. -61.81) for a few days with a small cadre of serious thinkers helping to sort out the world’s problems. In this super-connected, technological age, no place, not even this tropical paradise, can be out of contact with the long-running circus of fatuous incompetence being [...]
by Walker Mimms
Over the past few years, the high school gap year has become more and more popular—and with good reason. This interval, between high school and college, serves as a time for teenagers to transition into adulthood. It offers the important chance to explore the world outside the walls of school—before they reenter them for four more years—and to learn skills by dint of their own experience, rather than in the classroom.
If a gap year is spent wisely it has the potential to enrich the following years of college. It can introduce a taste of autonomy and maturity into collegiate study. This has been the case for several friends of mine, who either went abroad after high school to learn another language, or toured Europe and America with their bands, or even just moved out their parents’ houses and worked hard for a while. All of them, when they entered college, had grown from their exposure to the world. College-level work was, in different ways, more meaningful. And colleges themselves are recognizing the benefits of these sorts of experiences: Bennington College, for instance, where I am a senior, incorporates purposely non-academic internship periods into its own curriculum.
The uglier counterpart of this is the industry of gap year programs that has cropped up in recent years, ensuring college-age students looking for time off that their time will be spent profitably. The growth of the national Gap Year Fairs, from seven to thirty in the past five years, is a testament to their popularity. Many of these programs seem to cater exclusively to the demands of college admissions offices by inflating high school résumés during the interval.
Though not all of them miss the point, I think the approach of most of them can taint what a gap year should be. It is certainly wasteful to take a gap year as a postponement, rather than an extension, of adulthood, but I think a competitive, over-academic approach threatens to defeat the organic purpose of taking time off for oneself.
The John Hall Venice Course is a promising exception, one that offers a rounded, humanistic education to college-age students. Each year, the Course—now accepting applications for its fiftieth winter—takes recent high school graduates on an extended tour of Europe from late January to mid-March: one week in London, six in Venice, and an optional two more in Florence and Rome. Recalling the Grand Tour of eighteenth-century English education, the emphasis is on the art of these great cities, and the schedule for the eight weeks is packed both with daily walking tours of the cities and their museums, and with lectures on a variety of topics in the history of their art, architecture, and opera.
E-mail to friend
Last week, as the Obama administration scurried to remove the large quantities of egg that Vladimir Putin had deposited on its collective countenance, Michigan Congressman Mike Rogers commented that Putin was playing chess while Obama as “playing marbles.” I think that was unfair. Marbles are inherently attractive, and their deployment is an innocent pastime that has [...]
This week: Crete's role in writing and World War II, Partisan Review releases their archives, and Wozzeck at the Met.
Fiction: Boy, Snow, Bird by Helen Oyeyemi (Riverhead): In the early 1950s, Boy Novak flees New York and her abusive father, settling in a Massachusetts suburb. She marries a widower, Arturo Whitman, and enjoys her new life with him and his child from his previous marriage. Boy soon becomes pregnant and gives birth to a daughter, whose dark skin reveals that the Whitmans have been passing as white. Boy must confront prejudices that belong to both her and 1950s–American society in this new novel that follows in the tradition of Nella Larsen.
Nonfiction: The Invention of News: How the World Came to Know About Itself by Andrew Pettegree (Yale): Tracing the history of news across four centuries in ten different countries, Pettegree’s book explores the media from the town crier to Citizen Kane. Looking at the rapid development news media underwent, Pettegree concludes that, by the end of the eighteenth century, European citizens were uniquely situated to be active global citizens.
Poetry: Partisan Review full archives now online: The entire archives of the storied Partisan Review, published quarterly from 1934–2003, are now available online through the Howard Gotlieb Archival Research Center at Boston University. Glancing at the magazine’s contributors is like reading a who’s who list of twentieth-century writers. The archives feature the work of some of the most famous modern poets—Auden, Eliot, Merwin, Lowell, and Plath, just to name a few—and essays by a variety of critics ranging from Sontag to Greenberg to TNC’s own Roger Kimball and Hilton Kramer.
Art: “Gauguin: Metamorphoses” at MOMA (March 8–June 8, 2014): Featuring roughly 150 of the artist’s works, many of the pieces in this show were created by Gauguin from 1889 to his death in 1903. With an impressive collection of his works on paper, this exhibition focuses on Gauguin’s prints and transfer drawings and explores their relationship with his painting and sculpture. Look for a full review in a forthcoming issue of The New Criterion.
Other: House of SpeakEasy’s literary cabaret (March 18): House of SpeakEasy’s latest event is “A Literary Cabaret of Priceless Ideas and Rare Treasures,” and will feature readings, performances, and talks by the writer Susan Cheever, the composer and lyricist Michael Friedman, the author and actor Stephen Fry, the children’s writer Jeff Kinney, and the novelist Jay McInerney.
From the archive: Who's killing our symphony orchestras? by Samuel Lipman, September 1993: On the American Symphony Orchestra League report Americanizing the American Orchestra.
From our latest issue: Strange figures among the crags by Ben Downing: During World War II, Crete had a profound impact on several writers, including Patrick Leigh Fermor.
E-mail to friend
Gun-Brit Barkmin; photo by Fotostudio Charlottenburg
I was taking someone unfamiliar with opera to see Salome. I said, “It’s pretty much the most exciting opera in the world—along with another short Strauss opera, Elektra.” I exaggerated, of course, but not by much, I think. Anyway—Salome: What a piece of work. Tosca was famously described as a “shabby little shocker.” Salome is a shabbier, more shocking little shocker.
I spoke of going “to see” Salome, above, but this was actually a matter of hearing: a concert performance in Carnegie Hall by the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra, under Andris Nelsons. It was kind of a relief to have no production to criticize. There was no head, and, blessedly, no dance. What I mean is, there was no severed head of John the Baptist, and no soprano attempting the Dance of the Seven Veils. The music is dance enough.
The Vienna Philharmonic was the star of the show. The outstanding member of the cast, so to speak. With the orchestra right on the stage, Salome seemed more orchestral than ever. It was an extended Strauss tone poem, with supplementary voices.
The orchestra, overall, was plush and virtuosic. The woodwinds were squirmy, liquid, insinuating—very Oriental. (Remember, this is a Middle Eastern opera, a robes-and-sandals show.) The horns were so unflubbing, it seemed almost wrong. Unnatural. The low brass blew right through you. Strauss’s music “washed over you,” to use a cliché. After hearing the VPO on the stage, it would be hard to go back to a tinny orchestra in a pit.
Singing the title role, Salome, was a German soprano, Gun-Brit Barkmin. She had pretty much everything necessary. She was successful in light, lyric passages, and successful in big, dramatic ones. Mainly, she was confident, unafraid—unafraid even in error. This is an important quality for an opera singer, especially in a role like Salome. John was Tomasz Konieczny, a Polish bass-baritone. He sang manfully, sometimes beautifully.
Making the most out of the role of Herod was Gerhard Siegel, the German tenor. I had not quite realized how interesting this role could be. Herodias was a veteran American mezzo, Jane Henschel—who did quite a bit of acting, in this concert performance, and very good acting, too. A second mezzo, in a small part, was Ulrike Helzel, a German. What a beautiful voice she owns.
I have not forgotten the conductor, Nelsons—although, sitting in the audience, you could forget about him, because he was doing everything right. And he was not intruding himself. “Neither a borrower nor a lender be,” Shakespeare wrote. Nelsons was neither an over-luxuriator nor a rusher in this score. He followed Strauss’s contours intelligently and musically.
This conductor, a Latvian, is the new director of the Boston Symphony Orchestra. The BSO should be in good hands for years to come.
I have a complaint, actually—about Salome’s Final Scene, or what I call the “mad Liebestod.” It was a bit of a letdown: almost anticlimactic, with too little bite, and much too little structure or definition. It was looser and woozier than it ought to have been, not delivering its full impact. But it was good enough, and the overall performance was superb.
Sitting behind me was one of the foremost opera scholars and critics in America. Before the concert began, we were talking about Salomes and performances of Salome. Who and what had been good, over the decades? When this performance was through, he said to me, immediately, “That may be the best I have heard—ever.” A powerful statement, coming from a man of such experience and authority. Was he talking about the soprano, Barkmin, or everything? I’m not sure—probably both.
I’d like to end with a couple of footnotes, if you don’t mind—three of them.
1) At times, the singers sounded to me amplified. True? If so—worrying.
2) The singers were on platforms on either side of the orchestra. The platforms looked a little homely—just bare wooden structures. That seemed a little down-market for Carnegie Hall. I figure the carpenters there must make, what, a million dollars a year, minimum?
3) Let me tell you a story. I got it from the great Donald Arthur, who got it from the great Hans Hotter. If I don’t get it perfectly right, I’ll be in the ballpark.
Klemperer was conducting Salome somewhere, and the Herod got sick, or was otherwise indisposed. A tenor playing one of the five Jews was pressed into service. At the rehearsal—or maybe it was a performance—the tenor had trouble, and Klemperer lit into him. In his own defense, the tenor stammered, “But maestro, this morning, I was only one of the Jews.” Klemperer said, “So was I, but I still know my music.”
UPDATE: The word from Carnegie Hall is, no amplification. Whew. May they keep resisting this baneful trend.
E-mail to friend
I and some PJM friends off thoughts on Ted Cruz: is he likely to help or hurt Republicans in the 2014 mid-term elections? The more interesting question, I suggest, is whether he will help or hurt conservatives. Read my thoughts and the thoughts of my PJM colleagues here.
by James Panero
A cultural highpoint of classical music must be the development of engaging programs for children. Such events combine just the right mix of performance and narration to captivate and educate future generations (while also delighting the parents in tow).
The "Young People's Concerts" series at the New York Philharmonic offers the best, longest, and most consequential example of how this can be done right. The YPCs started as weekend children's matinees back in the late nineteenth century, became a regular feature in 1926, and reached their zenith (and "the Zenith") in the televised broadcasts of Leonard Bernstein starting in 1958. Some years ago, I watched the full run of these TV broadcasts, which is now available in a nine-DVD set from Kultur video, and wrote about it here.
I grew up attending the children's concerts at Lincoln Center (just after the Bernstein era). Now that I have a young daughter, I am back again. But as we've found, just because they are aimed at children, such concerts are not easy to perform well. A good children's concert is not a short, poorly orchestrated, dumbed-down version of an adult concert, which was what we unfortunately found last summer on the lawn at Tanglewood. All the Boston Symphony Orchestra did with that performance was drive a generation away from live performance, or at least the BSO's approximation of it, and back to YouTube. (If you didn't already know, some of the most captivating classical performances for children can now be found online. Just take a look at our current favorite--the Mariinsky's Nutcracker in flawless HD).
Coming off the BSO experience, we were unsure what we'd find at last weekend's New York City Ballet "Family Saturday." Billed as a one-hour presentation "designed especially for family audiences," the performance promised "short works and excerpts from New York City Ballet's diverse repertory" with narrative instruction by NYCB artists "offering insights on the music and choreography."
The answer was the finest children's performance I could imagine. Kept to a captivating, fast-paced hour, the NYCB performed excerpts from the season's repertory. This meant Emeralds with music by Gabriel Fauré, The Concerto Barocco with music by J. S. Bach, Who Cares? with music by George Gershwin, Barber's Violin Concerto, Dances at a Gathering with music by Frédéric Chopin, Todo Buenos Aires with music by Astor Paizzolla, and excerpts from the second and third acts of Coppélia with music by Léo Delibes.
Of the entire selection, the opening performance of Emeralds was the one letdown. At least one of the dancers was off a beat, and viewed from left orchestra, some of the staging was obscured by the musicians who were performing stage right.
But it all came together as soon as the morning's emcee, Silas Farley, stepped on stage. Farley is now just a young member of the corps de ballet, but his star quality can already outshine the principals of the company. My daughter and I first got to know about him through the NYCB's new online reality show, a high-production-value if slightly clichéd web series produced by AOL of life inside the company, with Sarah Jessica Parker narrating and ballet master Peter Martins acting as the heel (he would make a great villain in a 1970s-era James Bond film).
Here's a tip for next season's videos: less talking, more dancing. But between the catty gripes, the show did give us a glimpse of Farley, who was filmed the moment he received his contract to join the company. Taking bets now: With his great poise and bright attitude, Farley may one day be, what, Principal Dancer? Ballet Master? President of the United States? Until then we were lucky to catch him leading the NYCB's Family Saturday.
On stage, Farley's enthusiasm for dance was infectious as he (and the show's writers) made intelligent and fun comparisons between the programs--such as the differences between the choreography of George Balanchine in Jewels (with its performance directed at the audience) and Jerome Robbins in Dances at a Gathering (played more towards the other dancers on stage). He helped us appreciate the fun of Martins's choreography in the Barber Violin Concerto (with ragdoll moves by Megan Fairchild). He introduced us to an accordion-like instrument called the Bandoneon, played by JP Jofre, in Todo Buenos Aires. Finally, for Coppélia, with its robotic doll, he had the children of the audience stand up and move like marionettes.
It seems to be just the right metaphor. Here was a concert that pulled every string to further a child's appreciation of ballet.
E-mail to friend
( AHR-mah wih-ROOM-kweh)
In the Aeneid, the Roman poet Virgil sang of "arms and a man" (Arma virumque cano). Month in and month out, The New Criterion expounds with great clarity and wit on the art, culture, and political controversies of our times. With postings of reviews, essays, links, recs, and news, Armavirumque seeks to continue this mission in accordance with the timetable of the digital age.
Follow us on Twitter:
To contact The New Criterion by email, write to:Contact
March 11, 2014
Friends and Young Friends Event: Book Launch Party with Roger Scruton
March 25, 2014
Friends and Young Friends Event: A conference on "Preserving an Open Society in a Perilous World"
April 01, 2014
Friends and Young Friends Event: Piano Recital with Simone DinnersteinMore events >